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Why Are There 5,280 Feet in a Mile?

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Why are there 5,280 feet in a mile, and why are nautical miles different from the statute miles we use on land? Why do we buy milk and gasoline by the gallon? Where does the abbreviation "lb" come from? Let's take a look at the origins of a few units of measure we use every day.

The Mile

The basic concept of the mile originated in Roman times. The Romans used a unit of distance called the mille passum, which literally translated into "a thousand paces." Since each pace was considered to be five Roman feet—which were a bit shorter than our modern feet—the mile ended up being 5,000 Roman feet, or roughly 4,850 of our modern feet.

If the mile originated with 5,000 Roman feet, how did we end up with a mile that is 5,280 feet? Blame the furlong. The furlong wasn't always just an arcane unit of measure that horseracing fans gabbed about; it once had significance as the length of the furrow a team of oxen could plow in a day. In 1592, Parliament set about determining the length of the mile and decided that each one should be made up of eight furlongs. Since a furlong was 660 feet, we ended up with a 5,280-foot mile.

The Nautical Mile

So if the statute mile is the result of Roman influences and plowing oxen, where did the nautical mile get its start? Strap on your high school geometry helmet for this one. Each nautical mile originally referred to one minute of arc along a meridian around the Earth. Think of a meridian around the Earth as being made up of 360 degrees, and each of those degrees consists of 60 minutes of arc. Each of these minutes of arc is then 1/21,600th of the distance around the earth. Thus, a nautical mile is 6,076 feet.

The Acre

Like the mile, the acre owes its existence to the concept of the furlong. Remember that a furlong was considered to be the length of a furrow a team of oxen could plow in one day without resting. An acre—which gets its name from an Old English word meaning "open field"—was originally the amount of land that a single farmer with a single ox could plow in one day. Over time, the old Saxon inhabitants of England established that this area was equivalent to a long, thin strip of land one furlong in length and one chain—an old unit of length equivalent to 66 feet—wide. That's how we ended up with an acre that's equivalent to 43,560 square feet.

The Foot

As the name implies, scholars think that the foot was actually based on the length of the human foot. The Romans had a unit of measure called a pes that was made up of twelve smaller units called unciae. The Roman pes was a smidge shorter than our foot—it came in at around 11.6 inches—and similar Old English units based on the length of people's feet were also a bit shorter than our 12-inch foot. The 12-inch foot didn't become a common unit of measurement until the reign of Henry I of England during the early 12th century, which has led some scholars to believe it was standardized to correspond to the 12-inch foot of the king.

The Gallon

The gallon we use for our liquids comes from the Roman word galeta, which meant "a pailful." There have been a number of very different gallon units over the years, but the gallon we use in the United States is probably based on what was once known as the "wine gallon" or Queen Anne's gallon, which was named for the reigning monarch when it was standardized in 1707. The wine gallon corresponded to a vessel that was designed to hold exactly eight troy pounds of wine.

The Pound

Like several other units, the pound has Roman roots. It's descended from a roman unit called the libra. That explains the "lb" abbreviation for the pound, and the word "pound" itself comes from the Latin pondo, for "weight." The avoirdupois pounds we use today have been around since the early 14th century, when English merchants invented the measurement in order to sell goods by weight rather than volume. They based their new unit of measure as being equivalent to 7000 grains, an existing unit, and then divided each 7000-grain avoirdupois pound into 16 ounces.

Horsepower

Early 18th-century steam engine entrepreneurs needed a way to express how powerful their machines were, and the industrious James Watt hit on a funny idea for comparing engines to horses. Watt studied horses and found that the average harnessed equine worker could lift 550 pounds at a clip of roughly one foot per second, which equated to 33,000 foot-pounds of work per minute.

Not all scholars believe that Watt arrived at his measurement so scientifically, though. One common story claims that Watt actually did his early tests with ponies, not horses. He found that ponies could do 22,000 foot-pounds of work per minute and figured that horses were half again stronger than ponies, so he got the ballpark figure of 33,000 foot-pounds of work per minute.

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Big Questions
Why Do Fruitcakes Last So Long?
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Fruitcake is a shelf-stable food unlike any other. One Ohio family has kept the same fruitcake uneaten (except for periodic taste tests) since it was baked in 1878. In Antarctica, a century-old fruitcake discovered in artifacts left by explorer Robert Falcon Scott’s 1910 expedition remains “almost edible,” according to the researchers who found it. So what is it that makes fruitcake so freakishly hardy?

It comes down to the ingredients. Fruitcake is notoriously dense. Unlike almost any other cake, it’s packed chock-full of already-preserved foods, like dried and candied nuts and fruit. All those dry ingredients don’t give microorganisms enough moisture to reproduce, as Ben Chapman, a food safety specialist at North Carolina State University, explained in 2014. That keeps bacteria from developing on the cake.

Oh, and the booze helps. A good fruitcake involves plenty of alcohol to help it stay shelf-stable for years on end. Immediately after a fruitcake cools, most bakers will wrap it in a cheesecloth soaked in liquor and store it in an airtight container. This keeps mold and yeast from developing on the surface. It also keeps the cake deliciously moist.

In fact, fruitcakes aren’t just capable of surviving unspoiled for months on end; some people contend they’re better that way. Fruitcake fans swear by the aging process, letting their cakes sit for months or even years at a stretch. Like what happens to a wine with age, this allows the tannins in the fruit to mellow, according to the Wisconsin bakery Swiss Colony, which has been selling fruitcakes since the 1960s. As it ages, it becomes even more flavorful, bringing out complex notes that a young fruitcake (or wine) lacks.

If you want your fruitcake to age gracefully, you’ll have to give it a little more hooch every once in a while. If you’re keeping it on the counter in advance of a holiday feast a few weeks away, the King Arthur Flour Company recommends unwrapping it and brushing it with whatever alcohol you’ve chosen (brandy and rum are popular choices) every few days. This is called “feeding” the cake, and should happen every week or so.

The aging process is built into our traditions around fruitcakes. In Great Britain, one wedding tradition calls for the bride and groom to save the top tier of a three-tier fruitcake to eat until the christening of the couple’s first child—presumably at least a year later, if not more.

Though true fruitcake aficionados argue over exactly how long you should be marinating your fruitcake in the fridge, The Spruce says that “it's generally recommended that soaked fruitcake should be consumed within two years.” Which isn't to say that the cake couldn’t last longer, as our century-old Antarctic fruitcake proves. Honestly, it would probably taste OK if you let it sit in brandy for a few days.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between Stuffing and Dressing?
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For carbohydrate consumers, nothing completes a Thanksgiving meal like stuffing—shovelfuls of bread, celery, mushrooms, and other ingredients that complement all of that turkey protein.

Some people don’t say “stuffing,” though. They say “dressing.” In these calamitous times, knowing how to properly refer to the giant glob of insulin-spiking bread seems necessary. So what's the difference?

Let’s dismiss one theory off the bat: Dressing and stuffing do not correlate with how the side dish is prepared. A turkey can be stuffed with dressing, and stuffing can be served in a casserole dish. Whether it’s ever seen the inside of a bird is irrelevant, and anyone who tells you otherwise is wrong and should be met with suspicion, if not outright derision.

The terms are actually separated due to regional dialects. “Dressing” seems to be the favored descriptor for southern states like Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Georgia, while “stuffing” is preferred by Maine, New York, and other northern areas. (Some parts of Pennsylvania call it "filling," which is a bit too on the nose, but to each their own.)

If “stuffing” stemmed from the common practice of filling a turkey with carbs, why the division? According to The Huffington Post, it may have been because Southerners considered the word “stuffing” impolite, so never embraced it.

While you should experience no material difference in asking for stuffing or dressing, when visiting relatives it might be helpful to keep to their regionally-preferred word to avoid confusion. Enjoy stuffing yourselves.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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